"A lifer is better than a detainee"

Immigration detention is a clear example of the gap between toughness and effectiveness. It's not too late for the coalition government to take on the extremely expensive pain of the wholesale detention of migrants

The coalition government has promised Britain a new era of freedom and civil liberties. We have also been warned of the pain that spending cuts will bring.  But it remains to be seen whether the coalition will take on one area of public spending that specialises in inflicting extremely expensive pain: immigration detention will be a litmus test of whether those civil liberties will be conditional on having the right passport.

The coalition has already taken tentative yet unprecedented steps away from the previous government’s blind assumption that detention is always and inevitably at the heart of immigration control.  If the coalition makes good its pledge to end child detention, it would constitute the biggest curb on the power to detain that any government has taken of its own free will since immigration detention centres began to mushroom across the UK twenty years ago.

Almost unnoticed, but perhaps as significant, has been the cancellation of three planned new detention centres, at Bullingdon, Yarls Wood and HMP Morton Hall. The new atmosphere of austerity seems to have led the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to quietly abandon its ambitious expansionist agenda. Its dream of a future of 4,000 people behind bars for their immigration status at all times seems to have come to an abrupt end.

Why was the UKBA set on such a large expansion of the detention estate in the first place?  A clue is provided by the last official statistics, which every three months give a glimpse of who is in detention on one particular day.  On 30 June 2010, 245 people had been detained for over a year, the highest figure ever and not far short of 10% of the total detained population.  Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) are designed to facilitate deportations rather than warehouse migrants.  As they fill up with long-term detainees who are going nowhere, the UKBA will face some difficult questions.

As I have described in an earlier article, the last four years have seen a dramatic increase in the indefinite detention of migrants whom the UKBA cannot deport.  A forthcoming report by London Detainee Support Group, “No Return No Release No Reason,” highlights how rarely detention lasting years actually leads to deportation.  If someone cannot be deported after a full year, prolonging their detention further is unlikely to help.  Detaining one person for a year in a high security detention centre costs the taxpayer over £68,000.

The report also describes the human cost of indefinite detention.  People who have experienced it describe the stress of not knowing whether you will be released tomorrow, next year, or in ten years.  In the words of Dino Maphosa, “a lifer is better than a detainee because you know your release date.”  Dino has been detained since December 2007 for deportation to Zimbabwe.  Yet no-one can be sent to Zimbabwe because the High Court has ordered a stop on removals.  He has spent two years and nine months in detention to no purpose.

The waiting is hard, for Dino in his cell in the high security Colnbrook IRC and for his large extended family and young son outside.  “We are about fifteen cousins in the UK, can you imagine how many birthdays I have missed?  I am the only one who is missing.  Sometimes I wish if I could have been dead, then maybe they could move on.”

There is a growing consensus amongst organisations and monitoring bodies working in detention that wholesale change is necessary.  Twenty eight organisations, including service-delivery charities, policy bodies and church groups, have signed a letter calling on the government to hold an independent inquiry into the use of detention. 

Does the political will exist to move away from the large scale detention of migrants?  Similar changes have happened in other countries.  Australia since 2006 and Sweden in the late 1990s have closed the majority of their detention centres, instead managing migrants in the community, with impressive results. In both cases, change came from a crisis of legitimacy of detention, involving allegations of assaults and mistreatment in Sweden and criticisms of the detention of children and mentally disordered people in Australia.

If a similar crisis is brewing in Britain, so far it is largely restricted to the detention of children.  The UKBA has been unable to refute criticisms of the damage done to children in detention.  The credibility of the detention system has been undermined, but it is not yet clear whether, as in Australia, wider reform will follow. 

Last week’s suggestion by Damian Green that child detention may be minimised rather than ended was immediately denied by the Liberal Democrats. The delays in carrying out the pledge reflect the tension in the coalition between libertarian concern for civil liberties and the desire to seem tough on immigration.  It seems clear that many in the government genuinely want to consign child detention to history.  Yet there remains formidable pressure on any Immigration Minister to keep detaining. 

But ultimately this is a dilemma that the Government cannot afford to avoid.  The credibility of any system depends on it working, at least on its own terms.  The previous government seemed at times blithely indifferent to making the immigration system work.  Every year a new immigration act added to the complexity of a basically dysfunctional system.  Their purpose was not effectiveness, but to appear tough.

It has often been noted that governments of the right, like Nixon in China, have more leeway to take brave and pragmatic leaps.  While no amount of bureaucratic thuggery ever convinced the tabloids that New Labour was to be trusted on immigration, a Conservative government automatically awakens different assumptions.

Immigration detention is a clear example of the gap between toughness and effectiveness.  It makes no sense, from the point of view of immigration control, to detain migrants for years until the High Court orders their release.  The detention of stateless people who cannot be deported both abuses their rights and emphasises the limits of even the toughest immigration control agenda in a globalised world of ever-changing mass migration.

The Coalition has yet to fully make up its mind on which way to go.  It has announced a review of the asylum system, with a view to identifying ways of speeding up the process and saving money. Given the previous government’s regular attempts to do both, a degree of scepticism may be permitted.  Indeed, the terms of reference of the review exclude the detention of single adults, one area where such savings could very easily be made. 

It is not too late for the coalition to use this opportunity to undertake a fundamental review of the whole detention system.  It is two years since the Independent Asylum Commission called for “an independent root and branch review of the detention of asylum seekers.”  The previous government’s sleepwalk towards the routine incarceration of unwanted migrants can be halted.  We need an immigration system that recognises the complexities of migrants’ situations, their civil liberties, and the challenges of statelessness. A system that detains, if it must detain, truly as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. 

If such a system is to be attained, much will depend on whether the Liberal Democrats can use their influence in the coalition to secure change.  Their manifesto promised to “end the detention of individuals for whom removal is not possible or imminent.” The co-chair of their back-bench Home Affairs Committee, Tom Brake, will be discussing the prospects for achieving this at a fringe meeting at their party conference this week, held by London Detainee Support Group.

In the meantime, Dino will be waiting for news of a change, his life still on hold.  “Now my heart is empty, I am blank.  The day the sun is going to rise again is the day that I am going to walk out of detention.”  

The report by London Detainee Support Group, “No Return No Release No Reason,”will be published on 27th September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jerome Phelps is Director of Detention Action ( formerly London Detainee Support Group), where he has worked with immigration detainees for eight  years.  Detention Action is a small grass-roots charity, providing emotional support and non-immigration advice to immigration detainees in the London area, particularly at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres.  He is the lead author of the report "Detained Lives: the real cost of indefinite immigration detention".